“Heroes of the Spirit”
September 18, 2016
Rev. Jenny M. Rankin
First Universalist Society of Franklin
I have appreciated meeting some of you in these early days, listening to your stories about this place, how you came to find yourself here. Your stories of being part of this community when it worshipped at the chapel at Dean College or even earlier–stories about the search for land,t he raising of money, construction of a building, the blood, sweat and tears, and your stories of what came next, as you turned your attention from in here—this physical place—to out there—the wider world.I’ve listened as you’ve told me about your desire to go outside of this building, to do more out there in the world. I sense there is an eagerness for more conversation about the ways you could come together as a community and put your faith into action.
Today, this is the first of two sermons. I want to speak about two strands in the religious life—two essential strands: action and contemplation. Not either/or, but both/and, the ying and yang.
B. White once wrote, “I arise in the morning, torn between my desire to save the world and to savor it. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
Saving the world—Savoring it. Action and contemplation.
This week we are more on the “save the world” side of things, and in October, we’ll turn to the “savoring” side, the slowing down, the prayer and meditation, how we get ourselves still enough to rest in the beauty of the world. Both of these strands are essential to the spiritual life, to our trying to live balanced lives as people of spirit.
So this week the active tradition—the way of the prophets–Biblical prophets–like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos “let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Modern-day prophets — Like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa. Unitarian Universalist prophets—like Theodore Parker, the great anti-slavery preacher, who said, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” (President Obama used these words by in his eulogy after the Charleston shootings).
Prophets from the Universalist tradition—Like Clara Barton, from a little town in central Massachusetts, who grew up to start something that we now know as the Red Cross.
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich,
“so much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
The active strand of the spiritual life is just that—those “who–with no extraordinary power–reconstitute the world.”
This active strand of the spiritual life has been an important part of Unitarian Universalism ever since its origins and it is only getting stronger with time.
Today I want to tell you a story from our tradition—It is actually a story you can see on television this week. It is the story of a young Unitarian minister from Wellesley Massachusetts and his wife and how they were drawn into the storm that was Europe in 1939.
It’s a story about war and refugees on the move; it is a story about courage and about loss and about the price we sometimes pay in our own personal lives when we take heroic action in the public sphere.
In the past years we’ve been flooded by images of people on the move–Refugees, migrants. It’s an exodus of almost biblical proportions—a modern day Exodus—and the numbers are staggering. Millions of people on the move around the world are crammed into boats, walking on roads, standing in lines. And now with the European Union closing its borders last spring, migrants are trapped into refugee camps on Greek islands. People fleeing the war in Syria, the violence in Africa. But more than that, people are on the move in Southeast Asia, and in the Ukraine. This exodus is really a global thing. Millions of people displaced. They have left their home, gardens, and shops, setting out on a road that leads who knows where, Because that journey; however dangerous, even deadly, offers more hope than staying where they are. Like Odysseus, they are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, between the devil and the deep blue sea.
It is the worst migration crisis since World War 1, the United Nations has said. And today I want to tell you a story about World War II and refugees and some of our own Unitarian heroes and heroines of the spirit
I know that for many of us nowadays World War II must seem like ancient history, something that happened long ago and far away, but when I was a little girl growing up, it was a very real thing in my life. I didn’t understand it and it did seem far away, but I knew that every November my dad would point to the page on the calendar and talk to us about Kristallnacht. And when December 7 rolled around, he said it was Pearl Harbor Day.
In my house, growing up, World War 2 was not theoretical. It was not ancient history. It was a part of my parents’ lives and so, a part of my life. My father had served in the army, sent over to France and Belgium with a bunch of other new, unschooled recruits in the fall of 1944 and straight into something we now know as the Battle of the Bulge.
My mother was actually in Europe longer, serving with the Red Cross, driving around England, France and Germany on one of their “donut mobiles,” bringing coffee and snacks and conversation to soldiers who were far from home, often lonely and demoralized.
Neither of my parents talked much about the war. It was painful, we gathered. It wasn’t till almost 50 years later that they began to speak of it. My father showed me the letters he had written home. My mother pulled out a scrapbook she had made. It was all there: The telegram from the Red Cross telling her to report for duty, the ship’s manifest, the letters home, small black and white photographs, including one from the day she had driven into a concentration camp called Ravensbruck, a few days after it was liberated.
Growing up in my house, World War II may not have been spoken of very often,
but it was there. It was real. And maybe that’s why I find this story so moving—this story about a young minister from Wellesley, Mass and his wife and the storm they found themselves drawn into.
It starts a few months after “Kristallnacht,—that night in November of 1938 when the Nazis swept across Germany They destroyed Jewish homes and business and synagogues, burning and killing and breaking. They sent 30,000 to the camps.
“Kristallnacht,” literally, “crystal night”—the sound of breaking glass. Because of the sound of the glass shattering. It was an event that sent profound tremors through America and Europe, signaling to those who wanted to retain an inward gaze that there would be no ignoring, no containing, Hitler.
The story starts a few months later, in the winter of 1939, in a quiet home on a quiet street in the town of Wellesley Massachusetts. A young minister was just settling in to his chair by the fire for an evening at home after a very long day. The Rev. Waitstill Sharp, Boston born, Harvard educated, is the minister at the Wellesley Hills Unitarian church, and it’s been a long day: Preaching in the morning, meeting with teenagers, home visits. He was just settling down before a crackling fire when the parsonage phone rang. It was his friend, Everett Baker. “Can you and Martha come over and talk” (Martha was Sharp’s wife, a social worker trained at the Hull House in Chicago)
It was a puzzling request but the young couple is intrigued. They call a parishioner to come over and babysit, and then headed out into the snowy night to go to Baker’s nearby home.
It turns out that Baker was calling for Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association. For months, he and others at Unitarian headquarters have been worried about what they see unfolding in Europe. They have sent Robert Dexter over to Europe to see for himself and 6 days after Kristallnacht he climbs the steps at 25 Beacon Street to give his report. The situation is dire, he said, 200,000 refugees were flooding into Czechoslovakia, seeking refuge from the Nazi terror.
On that January night in Wellesley, the young couple arrives at Baker’s home to learn that Frederick May Eliot has called 17 other minister couples to ask them to go to Europe to set up an emergency relief operation in Czechoslovakia. 17 had said “no,” the The Sharps were the 18th phone call.
And so–after agonizing conversations—mainly about leaving their 2 children—ages 7 and 2—behind, the Sharps said “yes.” They went to Prague to set up their office and a month later, the German army marched into the city rounding up Jews, arresting, terrorizing. The Sharps’ office was flooded with refugees, people desperate to get out of Europe before Hitler got to them. Before they knew it, they were forging passports, laundering money, doing cloak and dagger spy work, personally escorting children and refugees onto trains.
Martha remembers being at the airport on the day the first 20 children were flown out. Operation Kinder transport that would, over time, ferry 700 children and teens to safety.
“Each little family was a small island of emotion. The parents had bought sweets or other small gifts…while saying the mundane things—‘don’t forget to write . . . . . we’ll be over to join you before you know it.’ The parents seemed to caress the children with their eyes, as if to engrave on their memories how they looked, spoke and talked in this last hour.’”
“As each boy and girl stepped out of the exit, they waved at their parents, ran across the snow-covered field, waved again and climbed aboard the plane.” Martha recalled. “Their parents’ self-control was marvelous. Smiling brightly, eyes brimming with tears, they waved back. . . . .”
“Then the door of the plane slammed shut. Something tremendously final in that sound. Some parents broke into tears. The pilot brought it as close . . . . As possible so that all the children on one side could get one last look and wave; then he turned, wheeled and the other side had a chance.”
“Then suddenly the engines raced and the plane took off, disappearing at once into the low clouds.”
Gerda Stein was one of the children on that plane. Years later, she remembered the last memory she had of her father, him running after the plane with his camera, trying to get one more shot. She never saw him again. He died in a camp on the eastern front. Her mother died at Auschwitz.
The Sharps’ work with refugees was the nucleus of what later became the Unitarian Service Committee, then the UU Service Committee.
Although their work was heroic, the impact on their own family was devastating; the children left behind; the marriage ended in divorce; for 50 years no one spoke of any of it. And then, one of their grandsons began to uncover and excavate the story. For all its sadness, he said, it’s one that needs to be told.
Yad Vashem is a memorial in Israel to non-Jews who—at risk to their own lives–helped Jews. There are 21,000 names written there. Three of these names are Americans. The names of Waitstill and Martha Sharp are number 2 and 3 on that list.
Ken Burns partnered with the Sharps’ grandson Artemis Jakowski to create a film entitled “The Sharps War.” And if you decide to tune in on Tuesday night at 9 pm, you’ll be joining Unitarian Universalists across the country who are watching as well. [Note that this airing has was in the past.]
I am grateful that the Unitarian headquarters in Boston had their eyes open–Grateful that they had the institutional power and means to send people over to Europe to see firsthand what was going on. To send the Sharps to help. It makes me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. And it makes me remember what people can do when they gather together. We have a collective strength, all of us together—that we simply do not have when we act alone.
In the weeks and months ahead, you will be gathering to consider how you, as a community, may strengthen your action in the world for justice, for peace. You will be gathering to consider how you will choose to serve the wider world, what you can do to be a place where people come because they are drawn by your energy and your passion and by what you are doing to be of help, to be of service.
Today, we do something that faith communities have done since the beginning of time. We witness, to the reality of human evil, nearly unthinkable. To the reality of human moral courage and goodness.
I want to end today with some words that came across the transom this week, the internet transom. They were written in ancient Rome a very long time ago— “This is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you directing your attention? What are you doing?
(Lucius Seneca, 4 BCE – 65)
Copyright @2016 Jenny M. Rankin